Biotechnology includes everything from pharmaceuticals to plastics to fertilizers and seeds to fuels. The United States long has led the sector, but risks falling further behind to China.
President Biden on Monday signed a new executive order designed to ensure the United States remains a global leader in the field of biotechnology, aiming to boost domestic biomanufacturing, reduce reliance on China for the things we need, and even boost the effort to achieve a “moonshot” to significantly lower cancer death rates.
The White House is scheduled to host a summit on Wednesday to unveil further details of the new initiative, which will include strategic investments in domestic manufacturing and research and development.
Biotechnology is a massive, eclectic industry, encompassing anything that uses biological processes for industrial purposes. The pharmaceutical industry is one of the leading biotechnology sectors, but biotechnology also includes things like energy, textiles, agriculture, and mining.
As Biden’s executive order states:
“The economic activity derived from biotechnology and biomanufacturing is referred to as ‘the bioeconomy.’ The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the vital role of biotechnology and biomanufacturing in developing and producing life-saving diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines that protect Americans and the world. Although the power of these technologies is most vivid at the moment in the context of human health, biotechnology and biomanufacturing can also be used to achieve our climate and energy goals, improve food security and sustainability, secure our supply chains, and grow the economy across all of America.”
The United States long has been a global leader in biotechnology. But, there’s growing concern within the Biden administration that the United States risks losing the lead to China, which has what the Washington Post described as having a “robust development program in biotechnology.”
The Center for a New American Security echoed those concerns in a July 2022 report, warning that the United States “risks ceding American leadership over one of the most powerful and transformative fields of technology in recent memory.” The report recommends the United States deploy “some form of industrial policy to promote its bioeconomy—one that is enshrined in democratic values.”
Unfortunately, we’ve already ceded too much of our leadership in this space to China, and we know this because we already have seen some of the real world consequences of offshoring too much of our biomanufacturing.
Take medicine. About 50% of the factories that make finished drugs (for example, pills) are now located abroad. More than 70% of factories that make pharmaceutical ingredients are overseas, with 80% of key ingredients manufactured abroad. As the Harvard Business Review warned in 2021:
“There is a very limited domestic capacity to make these essential medicine ingredients; the U.S. manufacturing base to make them has drastically eroded over the last several decades, and most of the supply now comes from abroad. For many materials, there is a single, foreign source of supply.”
Pharmaceutical shortages already have hurt patients. COVID-19 shutdowns in China led to shortages of a special dye needed to help read CT scans with contrast, because the United States is overly reliant on a GE Healthcare plant in Shanghai for the dye. Dr. Robert Califf, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, that the shortages were “just unbelievable” and meant that “someone with a stroke or heart attack wouldn’t be able to get an angiogram.”
The Biden administration’s efforts are a step forward in the much-needed effort to reshore this critical manufacturing and create more secure supply chains, not only for medicine but other sectors in the biotechnology space. But some cautioned on Monday that there’s more to be done. Health care expert Rosemary Gibson, who has written extensively on how the offshoring of pharmaceutical manufacturing has put the United States at risk, said that more must be done to secure generic medicines, which she called a “huge gaping hole in our health and national security.”
While much of the executive order issued on Monday focuses on actual manufacturing, research and development is also a key part of it, aiming to ensure the United States continues to innovate in this strategic field.
And for President Biden, biomanufacturing also is personal. Biotechnology has been used to generate cancer treatments, and seen as a strategic sector in the fight to lower cancer rates. Biden traveled to Boston on Monday to unveil a “moonshot” to lower cancer rates by at least 50% in the next 25 years.
Biden’s speech, it’s worth noting, came on the 60th anniversary of a speech given by President John F. Kennedy in Houston calling for the United States to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade — which the United States did.
While many of Monday’s announcements align closely with other Biden administration initiatives — including new laws like the CHIPS and Science Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, and executive actions like the creation of the Made in America Office at the Office of Management and Budget — it’s worth noting that this one is personal to Biden. The president lost his son, Beau, to brain cancer in 2015.
“President Kennedy set a goal to win the space race against Russia and advance science and technology for all humanity,” Biden said. “And when he said that goal, he established a national purpose that could rally the American people and the common cause, and he succeeded. Now in our time, on the 60th anniversary of his clarion call, we face another inflection point.”
He continued: “Today, I’m setting a long term goal for the cancer moonshot to rally America, an ingenuity that we can engage like we did to reach the moon that actually cures cancers — not all cancer — cancer — cures cancer once and for all.”